Bill Cosby, or someone on his marketing team, thought it would be a good idea to ask Twitter users to meme him using a meme generator on his website, and to share their memes with the hashtag #CosbyMeme. Clearly, whoever is in charge over there in Cosby-land should have consulted R. Kelly’s people first. The hashtag quickly turned into an endless stream of rape jokes and innuendo, with many claiming he was asking for it.
— 悪魔 (@dvminixk) November 10, 2014
Nearly a year ago, R. Kelly had a #TwitterFail of his own. Both of Kelly’s and Cosby’s hashtag fiasco’s were accompanied by one major piece of media that finally managed to get the public to actually pay attention and process what we’ve all been hearing and all pretty much accepted as fact for years. Essentially, both of these men were “taken down” by another man repeating what scores of women, particularly black women, both victims and activists, have been saying for years.
R. Kelly bought his way out of that conviction. That isn't even a secret. But then folks claimed his victims were #FastTailedGirls so…
— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) December 3, 2013
In the case of R. Kelly, an interview with music journalist Jim DeRogatis, which was published in The Village Voice a few days after the Twitter debacle, was the final nail in the coffin for the scandalous R&B crooner. The article focused on DeRogatis’ reportage of the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly, for the Chicago Sun-Times, nearly 15 years ago. The Village Voice piece didn’t include any new information, other than DeRogatis’ reflections on how he felt at the time of the original coverage. For some reason, however, the candid interview resonated with a lot of people. The article quickly amassed thousands of shares over several social media platforms and attracted thousands of comments.
The next year, in July 2014, following a petition, R. Kelly was dropped as the headlining act for the Fashion and Music festival in Columbus, Ohio. Nearly a year before that, despite protests from several women’s organizations, Kelly had performed at Coachella with indie band Phoenix.
Lady Gaga also distanced herself from the singer. She re-recorded their sexy single “Do What U Want,” with Christina Aguilera singing R. Kelly’s part, and opted not to release the music video for the original song. The steamy video was directed by fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has also been accused of sexual-misconduct many times throughout his career.
Since then, R. Kelly has quietly released a few singles, and even announced a new album. This recent project hasn’t generated anywhere near the amount of buzz his 2013 release “Black Panties” did.
Bill Cosby’s death by hashtag was incited in a slightly less formal manner. A grainy, faraway video clip of comedian Hannibal Buress’ stand-up act finally got the general public to acknowledge the problem with America’s favorite TV dad.
“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
“I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns,” Buress says later. “I’ve done this bit on stage and people think I’m making it up…. when you leave here, google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.'”
The video spurred hundreds of thinkpieces, and several victims have even come forward and spoken to the media. Cosby still hasn’t responded to any of the accusations, but he did cancel an appearance on The Queen Latifah Show. He also chose to continue promoting his comedy tour.
Like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby seems largely oblivious to public opinion of him. But, why are we surprised by this? Both men walk free and even fill stadiums despite the accusations against them that span decades. Both men have been fodder for hipster ironic jokes, stand-up comedians, memes, and Dave Chapelle sketches . After years of accounts from victims and witnesses, they continued to go about their business and add to their millions. Is it surprising that they likely both assumed the latest flurry of online fury would pass? — that they didn’t expect a hashtag to be their downfall?
Bill Cosby has played to respectability politics as the benchmark of his persona. Bill Cosby probably doesn’t approve of R. Kelly, who occasionally invokes religion to distract from his crimes. He probably doesn’t approve of Hannibal Buress, either. The backlash against Cosby seems more swift, likely due to the fact that he doesn’t exhibit the sheer gaul and ridiculousness that R. Kelly does. There aren’t any images of him using a naked woman’s body as a violin. He shifted from wholesome dad to creepy uncle almost overnight. This backlash took over 30 years, but it isn’t marred by the stench of victim blaming that seems to appear every time we have a conversation about R. Kelly. It’s easier to accept that Bill Cosby’s victims were deceived, while R. Kelly’s, despite being teenage girls, got what was coming to them. But that’s the reality of being a victim in rape culture, either you aren’t believed, or you are believed and blamed for it.
Bill Cosby being both condemned by and treated like the individuals he most likely looks down on seems like cosmic justice. But every article, every joke, and every tasteless meme is another occasion one of his victims might have to relive what happened to her. Like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby might quietly go away for a while, but this version of justice that requires hashtags and meme generators isn’t really justice at all. For starters, there are many other predatory public figures, shrouded in privilege and the institution that is Hollywood, who haven’t been sentenced by the court of public opinion to a lifetime of ridicule and being ignored.
First we laugh, then we condemn, then we meme, then we get uncomfortable if you mention them, then we ignore them — then what? Being ridiculed and then ignored isn’t what justice looks like.